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Trump’s Greenland gambit finds allies inside government

By Daniel Lippman

Donald Trump’s left-field idea to buy Greenland has been mocked by everyone from cable pundits to Danish pols — but it’s also given an internal boost to a small network of advocates in and outside the administration who have struggled to get traction for their ideas for boosting America’s ties to the frozen island territory.

Yet just when they have the president’s ear, the odds of success for even their more limited agenda of closer partnership have suddenly plunged as Trump fulminates against the prime minister of Denmark and doubles down on a proposal that is as impractical as it is seductive to a media and political class stuck in the doldrums of August.

Advocates of bolstering U.S. ties to Greenland see it as a way of elbowing out geopolitical rivals, namely China and Russia, that have aggressively targeted the Arctic with military bases, scientific research stations and strategic investments.

But even that now seems more difficult given that the Danish government laughed off the idea of selling the 811,000-square-mile, semi-autonomous territory, and the Greenland premier said the island was “not for sale.” The Trump administration’s outlier position on climate change is another high hurdle, given the growing evidence that Greenland’s vast ice sheets and glaciers are melting at accelerating rates.

But the lonely voices in the administration who are pushing the cause insist that boosting U.S. ties to Greenland is a worthy idea that should be taken seriously. Doing so — let alone annexing Greenland outright — would help America beat China in the race for the Arctic, they say, while expanding domestic access to critical mineral resources.

Chinese plans to finance and build three airports in Greenland and the intelligence reports that were likely given to Trump on the matter might have helped spark the president’s acquisitive instincts, according to a former official in a Republican administration who is familiar with the matter. (The Chinese plan was thwarted when the Danish government agreed to back low-cost loans for some of the airports.)

“Trump’s been asking his government for some matter of months what can we do to make sure that China doesn’t get Greenland,” said the former official, who has experience in the Arctic. “When China did that, I think that put it on the radar screen of the president.”

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a defense hawk and a close ally of the White House, recently said that he had spoken with the president about the idea of purchasing Greenland, and even met with the Danish ambassador to Washington to discuss the issue.

Trump may have been intrigued by the prospect for months, but he hasn’t initiated the normal policy process that necessarily would have involved the State Department, officials there say. Most of Foggy Bottom was surprised to learn that the president had been discussing the idea when the news was first published in The Wall Street Journal.

The president also doesn’t seem to be trying too hard to win Danish political or public support for such a purchase. He canceled a visit to Denmark because the government refused to consider his idea, and on Wednesday, he accused Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of disrespecting the U.S. with a “nasty” and “inappropriate statement” opposing his bid to purchase Greenland, which Frederiksen had said was “absurd.”

The heated exchange left Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scrambling to contain the damage, hopping on a phone call with his Danish foreign counterpart, Jeppe Kofod. (Pompeo expressed his “appreciation for Denmark’s cooperation as one of the United States’ allies,” according to a readout.)

“If you had seen the State Department doing this and running it through a policy process, I think you would have had the prime minister teed up and this sort of public exchange wouldn’t have happened,” said an administration official with knowledge of the issue. “The Danish government would have been prepped in a different way.”

One Republican former NSC official who is still an informal adviser to the government said the State Department “probably winced” at the idea once it became public.

“They’re professional diplomats,” he said. “They might have anticipated the pushback from Denmark, and they might have shown some discomfort over the manner and abruptness in which it was broached.”

Still, there is a small group of people within national security adviser John Bolton’s office and at the State Department who pay attention to the Arctic on a day-to-day basis, and some have focused on pushing for the U.S. government to make Greenland a priority.

Both the Pentagon and the State Department have expressed alarm about China’s growing interest in the Arctic, and have grappled to various degrees with policies designed to reassert an American presence in the region.

When Pompeo traveled to Finland for an Arctic summit back in May, he was also supposed to go to Greenland but canceled at the last minute to deal with tensions with Iran. He never rescheduled the trip. At the time, Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland wasn’t high on his radar, according to another administration official. The State Department declined to comment.

If Pompeo had gone to Greenland, his message would have been, according to one of the officials: “We’re here. We’re interested. We’d love to partner. Greenland is part of North America. You’re our friends.”

A Republican with knowledge of the matter said that buying Greenland has also been talked about among some of Trump’s Wall Street friends, who could potentially gain from such a purchase.

Part of the president’s rationale for offering to purchase Greenland is that U.S. businesses could profit from the island. While American companies would need to invest quite a bit up front and it may take a while before investors see a return on investment, “it will be very profitable,” said Walter Berbrick, founding director of the Arctic Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

Trump famously tweeted in 2012 that the concept of global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” and has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax.”

But ironically, as parts of the island thaw, buying Greenland — or acquiring mining rights — could give the U.S. access to the island’s huge reserve of resources, including rare earth minerals mined for the manufacture of critical parts of electronics, including smartphones, and electric cars. These minerals, which are also important in satellites and fighter jet engines, partly motivate China’s interest in the island, which also has tons of fresh water.

Besides the island’s abundant natural resources, U.S. officials working on the issue have focused on Greenland’s growing geostrategic importance. During World War II, American naval and air bases in Greenland helped the U.S. project power to counter the Axis powers, and later a Soviet Union newly armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

“Whoever holds Greenland will hold the Arctic. It’s the most important strategic location in the Arctic and perhaps the world,” said Berbrick, who has consulted with U.S. government officials on increasing ties to Greenland but spoke in his personal capacity.

Greenland, which has 57,000 people spread across dozens of villages on an island nearly half the size of the continental U.S., is currently protected by Danish ships patrolling thousands of nautical miles of coastline and responding to more than 200 search and rescue missions every year, noted Berbrick. The U.S. also maintains Thule Air Base, the Air Force’s northernmost facility and a key spoke in America’s network of sites that monitor potential nuclear launches against the American homeland.

“It’s a strategic piece of property and we obviously want to maintain our strategic advantage globally,” one senior administration official said. “Any country would be thinking about these things, not just the United States.”

The prospect of a greater partnership with Greenland has appealed to multiple U.S. governments over the years, including the George W. Bush administration, and back in 1946, President Harry Truman proposed buying Greenland for $100 million in gold with some extra Alaskan oil rights thrown in. Trump’s incarnation of the idea has been discussed within parts of the government for quite some time, according to a senior administration official, though it’s not clear how seriously.

Another administration official said that he had heard “whispers” about the idea of purchasing Greenland on the staff level for some time and that one well-connected political appointee in the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, which typically handles Arctic issues, had been “interested in seeing this happen for a while.”

Proponents of an expanded partnership, perhaps including the potential purchase of the entire land mass, argue that the U.S. could help residents of Greenland develop the island. One official noted that while Greenland is currently being subsidized by the Danes to the tune of more than $500 million a year, if the U.S. forged a stronger relationship with Greenland, the federal government could theoretically afford to greatly increase the island’s subsidy.

“We can do better for them than Denmark does, and I don’t mean that against Denmark,” this official said. “But they can only afford to do so much given the size of their economy. We can afford to do a lot more.”

American cultural influence is already evident in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, according to Berbrick, who visited the island last December. Greenlandic children learning English as a foreign language has become a priority for some on the island while at the same time preserving their culture and official Greenlandic indigenous language, said Berbrick.

“When you walk around Nuuk, you’re sitting at a café or a restaurant listening to Taylor Swift and watching CNN and hearing people speak English, so they affiliate and are more connected with North America rather than Europe,” said Berbrick, a former senior adviser to the special representative for the Arctic region at the State Department.

Some Greenlanders’ desire for independence is another factor in the American appetite for an expanded partnership, according to the former official in a Republican administration.

The aspiration for freedom from Danish control among some Greenlanders was “something we never put in official documents because it might have pissed off the Danes, but it was something that was in pretty much every briefing,” said the former official.

Also in those briefings is climate change. Trump has dismissed the effects of carbon emissions on global average temperatures, but the warming has hit Greenland exceptionally hard. Greenland lost a catastrophic 255 billion metric tons of ice a year between 2003 and 2016 and the rate of loss has increased over time, according to NASA satellite data.

“The reason that we’re talking about this idea is because the Arctic is warming, Greenland is warming, and Greenland is ground zero to climate change,” said Berbrick.

It’s by no means clear just how serious or sustained the president’s interest in purchasing Greenland was before news of the idea broke — and his cheeky tweet promising not to build a gilded Trump Tower in Nuuk didn’t clarify matters.

But officials who have worked on Greenland were angry that the Beltway class has ridiculed Trump for advocating the Alaska Purchase-type transaction and believe that as more Americans understand the issue, they’ll come around.

“It makes total sense of us to propose it and it makes total sense for them to consider it,” said the senior administration official. “This notion that Donald Trump wants to buy an island so he can put a tower on it, it’s just absolute CNN silliness.”

“One of the jobs of government is to look out over the horizon and basically throw ideas out about what is in the long term interests of the United States,” the official said. “If we didn’t think about these things thoughtfully, not something for tomorrow or next year but 10, 20, 50 years from now, we or the other administrations wouldn’t be doing their jobs. So I don’t understand what the hue and cry is about.”